Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, writing

Is Life an Accident?


When you sit in first class, you can feel a tinge of resentment oozing out of those in coach who are boarding and walking by. Some of them are probably wondering—“Why does he get the bigger seat, the longer space for his worthless legs, and the attendant who waits on his every need? Look at that cloth napkin and bottled water, while he plays games on his smartphone? How is it he will get the hot meal while I will get a bag with six pretzels? Why is it I am back with the rest of the sardines and crying babies, where I am trying to do really important work—while he uses his spacious abode to probably sleep or watch some lame movie? Doesn’t God care?”

I am guessing all of this because these are actually some of my thoughts when I am walking by. But not on last night’s flight from San Antonio to Portland. It’s not that I paid the extra money (I am way too cheap for that). I just accrued enough miles to get bumped up. And given my history, I will enjoy this experience again—sometime in 2026.

Of course, all of these things occur because God ordains our moments. Right? I believe so, though some like Terry McDonell would say it is all random. In his book I just finished, The Accidental Life, he ends by noting that this life has a certain randomness to it, “like marbles rolling around in an old cigar box.” So let life happen to you.

I should be clear. I did not choose to read the book for his philosophy on God and the subject of sovereignty. McDonell has lived a lot further out on the wild side than I have cared to live. While I was a campus pastor with YFC during the Vietnam era, he was an activist with the radical SDS. While I have spent most of my life as a pastor and professor, he has spent most of his as an editor. He has left his mark in publications such as Outside, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Newsweek. And this, in particular, is why I decided to read the book.

Since I have moved more and more into writing, I am curious to see what it must be like to be a writer, as well as an editor. McDonell has spent lots of time with his many literary heroes (often at parties), and over time he has accumulated some good advice for those on both sides of the fence.

The first thing he notes is that an editor, by definition, is a person with no friends. An editor is this “necessary evil” that spends a lot of his time rejecting people (like me). Hence, there is this uneasy relationship between editors and writers, and he recognizes that endless rejections can leave a writer disturbed and insecure (I know). Over time, editors can feel like they are “overseeing petting zoos full of needy misfits and narcissists.” Some editors show some compassion and give some hope. Others leave writers hanging for months, while a small number simply give a fast no and get on with things. And then there are those who are downright rude—who would prefer to respond to a proposal with—“Don’t ever send this kind of brain-damaged swill in here again!”

Editors want to know how much they are about to read (hence the word count at the beginning of this post). He does this with each chapter in his book. Beyond his relational experiences, what makes the book interesting is the advice he has accumulated over the years—

 About life—there are these thought—

-“Avoid smallness, shun formula, let it rip.”

-“The drawback to a journey that has been too well planned is that it does not leave enough room for adventure. ”

“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

-“Good times should be orchestrated and not left to the uncertainties of chance.”

His main advice, however, focuses on writing, and since most of us write something—even if it is a note on Facebook—here are some things to ponder, that may be applicable—

“The length doesn’t matter if the piece is good, and something that is good is determined by voice and narrative.”

“The best writing is when readers read to see what happens—but more—when they read every word to savor the meaning and balance of each sentence.” (I do this with Barbara Brown Taylor’s books).

“Good writers see their work as a craft, rubbing words in their hands, turning them around and feeling them.” (I imagine Eugene Peterson doing this).

“If you want your pages to be compelling, this means making them confrontational, telling readers to sit down and listen or to kiss off.” (Pastors would sometimes like to do this).

He has something to say about grammar—and he does not hold back–

“Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” (Wow, I should think about this; I should reflect on what he is saying; and I should note this down).

-“When you catch an adjective, kill it” (This is a bold, edgy, brash, and daring statement).

Here are some other thoughts about the task—

-“There’s no such thing as writer’s block—writing is hard work, so quit whining and work through it.” (I am—even right now!).

-“Kill your darlings—cut anything precious, overly clever or self-indulgent.”

-“Every writer has to eventually confront the question—‘Why am I doing this?’”

-“If you’re going to write about a bear, bring on the bear!”

Of course good writing paints images—turning the abstract into something concrete—

-“Mitchum’s eyelids hang down from his face like two broken blinds in a flophouse.” (Catchy, though it may not work in a sermon).

-“Tabasco sauce is to bachelor cooking what forgiveness is to sin.” (I’ll use this in theology class).

Good writing takes something simple in life, like a national pastime, and brings us deeply into ourselves—

-“Those of us in the seats always want our athletes—the ones who are our age—to quit while they’re still on top. That way they won’t embarrass us. We then want our heroes to instantly disappear so that we can always remember them (and ourselves) as magnificent and forever green. For it is when our athletes start to go downhill that we are first forced to come to grips with the possibility of our own mortality.”

And, I would add, “…and with the reality of meeting our God, which is no accident.”


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